WASHINGTON — Ron DeSantis' shadow campaign for the presidency has suddenly become much more visible, even as his advisers insist he’s focused on governing Florida.
DeSantis recently launched a tax-exempt organization that sponsored his speaking engagements to police groups in New York and the Philadelphia and Chicago suburbs last week. He hosted a retreat for top donors from across the country at the Four Seasons in Palm Beach this weekend. And he has already sold out venues for a national book tour that begins Tuesday.
In one midsize city, DeSantis’ political team has set a goal of raising $1 million for a spring event that is still in the planning stages — an aggressive sum, particularly given the size of the city — according to a person with knowledge of the plans.
“He needs to get his name out there. He needs to get his positions out there,” said Perry DiLoreto, an influential GOP donor in Nevada who opposes former President Donald Trump and likes what he’s seeing from DeSantis but has not yet committed to a candidate. “Just having a great idea and a great direction doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful. You have to bring people together and get them to buy into what’s going on.”
Even without jumping into the race, DeSantis has distinguished himself as the greatest early threat to Trump winning the Republican nomination for a third time in a row — with the two men consistently running far ahead of other hopefuls in national polls. But his recent moves suggest an acknowledgment that as potential rivals target him and court GOP endorsers, donors and staff, he has to find ways to show he can engage at the national level.
“Ron DeSantis has plenty of momentum,” said David Urban, a former Trump campaign aide who is close to several people in the forming field and remains undecided. “I think that he just kind of wants to be part of the dialogue moving forward at this point.”
As more than 150 DeSantis contributors met in Florida on Friday — the day after a nearby Trump super PAC fundraiser — a Texas group convened a donor conference with a cattle call of potential rivals in Austin. In addition to question-and-answer sessions at the conference, hopefuls met in more intimate settings with smaller groups of prospective donors on the sidelines of the main event.
“There’s folks that don’t like Trump and aren’t sold on DeSantis,” said an adviser to one politician who planned to meet with donors in Austin.
But right now, it’s not clear whether there’s a path for another candidate, this adviser said, noting the high cash bar for entry in a race that features a former president and a high-polling governor who raised more than $200 million for his 2022 re-election bid.
“There’s a whole lot of speculation around whether there’s a third lane,” he said. “To really be a serious contender you’re going to have to have several billionaires who are willing to write seven- or eight-figure checks.”
Gregg Keller, a Missouri-based GOP strategist, said big-dollar contributors are a sophisticated set who want to see whether Trump’s still on his game, whether DeSantis can withstand the rigors of a national campaign or whether there’s a hidden gem in the field.
“I hear every day from donors who are starting through that decision tree now. ‘Do I do Trump? Do I do DeSantis? Or do I take a flier on one of these other folks who looks like is gonna run?’” Keller said. “The smart ones realize they’re going to have to come to a decision, but they’re also waiting to be wooed. They’re also looking for evidence as to who they should be backing.”
That creates some tension for DeSantis. His inner circle insists he can wait at least a few months, with several sources saying a campaign launch — if he decides to run — would likely come in June.
DeSantis has used Florida as a living, evolving laboratory for turning conservative policy into winning politics, a formula that his allies see as replicable on the national level. In what was once seen as a swing state, DeSantis won re-election in November by a margin of nearly 20% while imposing restrictions on classroom education and vaccine mandates that infuriated progressives.
With DeSantis’ book release also comes a ramp-up in events across the country — from more antagonistic appearances in blue states like Illinois and New York, to closed-door visits to state parties across the South in Texas and Alabama in the coming weeks.
He has sold out a March 5 appearance at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
One source close to the governor said that these events, presidential whispers aside, are the natural outgrowth of the work Republicans, led by DeSantis, have done in Florida, and that DeSantis can uniquely provide a tangible example of a model for how to consolidate conservative support in a previously swingy state.
“Naturally,” this person said, “there’s intrigue in that.”
And even as the political world awaits his ultimate decision, advisers insist the second-term governor’s attention is at home — in large part because it’s what happens in Florida that will continue to form the bedrock of whatever he does next nationally. Abortion restrictions, shipping migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and a focus on Florida schools have long been the center of DeSantis’ conservative grassroots appeal.
That leaves his orbit’s gaze not on his possible rivals and the process of a presidential campaign but on the policy, his allies say.
“If you think he’s in a conference room strategizing on how to beat Trump,” one source said, “he’s not.”
In fact, DeSantis has demurred when asked about the man whose 2018 endorsement helped propel him to his first term as governor.
Trump, however, is already seeking to define his top challenger. But as he deploys the same style of name-calling and derision that shot him to the top of the pack in 2016 in a large field, some in Trump’s orbit worry that the same old tactics will fall short in 2020 — especially against DeSantis, whom Trump himself helped endear to the MAGA base.
“It was too early” for those kinds of attacks, one longtime Trump confidant said. “The stuff that worked in 2016 may not work in 2024. The nicknames? It’s a repeat.” Plus: DeSantis’ lack of response “made him seem like the bigger man” to some.
In one key arena — foreign policy — Trump has taken a substantive shot at DeSantis. The former president, who built his brand under an “America First” slogan, has characterized DeSantis as a “globalist.” DeSantis, a military veteran who leaned toward the defense hawks during his time in Congress, is struggling to articulate a clear message on whether the U.S. should continue to help Ukraine repel Russia’s year-old invasion.
“They have shown themselves to be a third-rate military power,” DeSantis said of Russia on the "Fox and Friends" show. “Russia has been really, really wounded here, and I don’t think that they are the same threat to our country, even though they are hostile. I don’t think they are on the same level as a China.”
At the same time, DeSantis didn’t call for an end to U.S. aid to Ukraine or offer any specific prescription on how to alter American policy.
As he travels the country, he can only expect to be asked more about national and international issues, and for Republicans to be listening closely to his answers.
On Friday, former Vice President Mike Pence chastised DeSantis and other Republicans who equivocate on U.S. support for Ukraine, during a speech in Austin. Moments later, in an exclusive interview with NBC News, Pence addressed whether DeSantis was wrong about the threat Russia poses.
“I would say anyone that thinks Vladimir Putin will stop at Ukraine is wrong,” he said.
DeSantis’ ability to navigate the attacks from the sidelines, whether actively or passively, may determine if he can crowd out the rest of the challengers to Trump.
Urban said there was a long time between now and when voters go to the polls — and a scenario in which the early primary states prove particularly difficult for the front-runners.
"It’s kind of a little bit early," he said, "to write anybody off yet at this point."
Jonathan Allen reported from Washington, Natasha Korecki from Chicago and Ali Vitali from Austin, Texas.